Composer Daniel Catán set a daunting, yet admirable agenda for himself. He wanted to create a school of Spanish-language opera, and the culture it represents, in the same way Benjamin Britten had done for English. Britten composed operas from masterpieces of English literature and stories depicting English village life, and he served as a direct inspiration for Catán. "There is no tradition of opera in Spain [or Latin America]," Catán explained. The good news for opera and operagoers is that Catán, who once said that the genre is bigger than language, took giant steps towards establishing that tradition by composing four successful operas with Latin American cultural and linguistic context. All of them are currently in active repertoire.
Catán, a native of Mexico City, didn't set out to be an opera composer at all. He was a promising young pianist, and he left to live with relatives in England at age thirteen to further his training. He eventually enrolled in the University of Sussex to study philosophy and music. The university, he told me, was very near to Glyndebourne, the renowned English opera house in the Sussex countryside. "I think I spent as much time at Glyndebourne as at the university," he said. "Because I had a job there I was able to listen over and over again to Wagner, Mozart, Strauss, Berg. I actually think Pelléas and Mélisande (a Debussy opera) influenced me the most. But it was at Glyndebourne that I came to love opera. I discovered music in a bigger way than just the piano."
That discovery led him to further concentrate on music at the University of Southampton. "I needed to get all the traditional techniques and tools--harmonies, counterpoint, polyphonics, orchestration--as well developed as possible," he explained. One of his professors was Peter Evans, an authority on Britten's music, who became a major influence. Catán then enrolled at Princeton University where he studied electronic music and sound with serialist Milton Babbitt and earned both a master's and a doctorate. Princeton would seem a strange choice, but Catán credits Babbitt as being both open-minded and quite encouraging of students in developing their own voices. In the end, Catán's lyrical, neoimpressionist style, which incorporates some dissonance, light Latin rhythms, and unique instrumentation, is recognizably distinct. Audiences and performers alike respond enthusiastically to his work.
I met with Catán at a European-style café in Pasadena, California, on a sunny September off-day during the six-performance premiere of his newest opera, Il Postino , at the Los Angeles Opera. I found him remarkably relaxed and engaging at a time when he was inundated with news about, and spin-offs from, Il Postino's remarkable success. A friend from the Los Angeles mayor's office came by to say that funds had just been allocated for an outdoor screening of Il Postino at a large downtown plaza--an effort to connect with new audiences and the city's large Hispanic population. Il Postino was already slated to go on to Vienna, Paris, the University of Houston, and Cincinnati.
It had been a long journey to arrive at this juncture. After finishing his degrees, Catán returned to Mexico in the late 1970s as music administrator for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. "During those years, Mexico was feeling rich [from oil revenues]," he said, "but not adventurous. We put on Strauss, de Falla, Britten ... I learned the mechanics." He eventually began working on his first opera...